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Docs Discover Drug-Spiked Eggplant Sent Beijing Diners To Hospital

Here at NPR, we've heard about some wacky food scandals. There have been gingerbread houses harboring bad bacteria, turkeys trotting around with arsenic in their guts and a prison hooch that brewed up botulism.

But a recent report from China may take the cake –- or should we say, the eggplant.

Two people in a Beijing restaurant intentionally laced the eggplant dishes with enough of a blood pressure drug to send 80 diners to the hospital. Everyone recovered, but 34 of them had to have their blood pumped to remove the drug.

Over the past few years, China has experienced a string of food safety scandals. Steroid-boosted pork and antifreeze-tainted vinegar sickened hundreds last year. And, back 2008, melamine-spiked baby formula sent shock waves through the country.

But why the heck would a restaurant want to harm its customers?

According to a recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the two perpetrators were in cahoots with the restaurant down the street, and they wanted to give it a "competitive advantage" by sickening their rivals' diners.

Such competitive poisoning is not unheard of in China. Just last year, The AP reported on a local dairy farmer who intentionally tainted his competitor's milk supply with nitrite.

In the eggplant incident, the miscreants hid the drug clonidine – a white, odorless powder – in the restaurant's starch. When the chefs thickened up the braised eggplant with the starch, they inadvertently served up a few nearly toxic stir-fries.

All diners that ate eggplant for lunch on April 23, 2010, fell sick almost immediately, the report says. They got dizzy and tired, suffered from nausea and blurred vision, and even started vomiting.

At a local hospital, doctors discovered potentially toxic levels of clonidine in their blood. They treated the patients for low blood pressure and within 48 hours, all their symptoms resolved.

Police eventually discovered the drug in the restaurant's starch and traced it to the neighboring restaurant. The two perpetrators were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, the report says.

Efforts to reach Chinese officials who wrote the report were unsuccessful, so we turned to a a domestic poison expert for insights.

Toxicologist Wendy Klein-Schwartz says the criminals probably chose clonidine because it's a potent drug that takes only a tiny amount to cause serious symptoms. "They wouldn't need to put a lot [of the drug] into the eggplant so people probably wouldn't notice it. It wouldn't change the taste," she says. "That's just my guess."

Klein-Schwartz helps run the Maryland Poison Center. She says clonidine is especially dangerous for kids. It's on the "one pill can kill list" for children under 6, and each year, about 1,500 young children in the U.S. go to the emergency room after accidentally taking the drug.

"Even when a kid's taken just one tablet, we're very worried about this," she says.

Usually this occurs when a toddler grabs his grandma's blood pressure drug from a table, she says, not from Chinese takeout.

Nonetheless, the Annals report cautions that doctors treating what appears to be a foodborne illness should also consider drug spiking as a potential cause.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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